The Paris attacks in context

Written by Olivia Arigho-Stiles on . Posted in Current features, Features

The attacks that engulfed Paris last week have profoundly shaken a continent and left a mood of grim resignation in the French capital. Scores were killed in a chilling series of attacks on bars, restaurants, a concert hall and a stadium, in one of the worst atrocities on French soil since the 1961 Algerian Massacre. At the same time, last week dozens more were killed in bomb blasts in Beirut. The Islamic State, (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for both attacks.

In response to the Paris attacks and amid a wave of public grief and outrage, President Francois Hollande swiftly declared that ‘we are going to lead a war which will be pitiless’, promptly launching air strikes on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria. Hollande also called for a state of emergency and for new authorities to divest French citizenship from people allegedly involved in terrorism.

Coming months after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January this year, the attacks have reawakened fraught debates about Islam in France and in the world and raised questions about the effectiveness of existing anti-terrorism safeguards. There are additional fears the attacks could lead to the further marginalisation of France’s Muslim population, while many commentators have pointed out the unfair, indeed racist, selectiveness in the world’s outpouring of grief for Paris but relative neglect of Beirut.

But Professor Olivier Roy, Chair of the EUI’s SPS department and author of Globalized Islam, is adamant that the attacks are not indicative of an increasingly powerful or militant Islamism permeating European societies. In an interview with EUI Times, he affirms that, ”No on the contrary,  this attack [was committed by] the same kind of people who have been involved in terrorist actions in the past twenty years; disenfranchised youth made up of second generation Muslims and converts. That hasn’t changed, but the way they connect themselves with international organisations apparently has changed.’’

François_Hollande_-_Janvier_2012Likewise Professor Anna Triandafyllidou, Chair of the Global Governance Programme at the EUI, does not believe that the attacks represent a systemic failure of integration in western European societies nor that wider generalisations can be deduced about the prevalence of Islamic extremism in society.

Vis-à-vis social integration, France has long faced criticism over its Parisian banlieues, the impoverished suburbs in the périphérique which are home to immigrant majority-Muslim communities, as well as high levels of crime and unemployment. “This is not a question of integration.’’ Triandafyllidou tells EUI Times firmly. “It’s not a systemic failure. It’s a very radical expression of a malaise that exists, but the malaise is not such that it is a massive social phenomenon. It is very radical but it is very small.’’

Roy adds, “There will be a backlash against the manifestation of religion, the mosque, the veil. But you have Muslims at all levels of society. We tend to think they live only in certain neighbourhoods, but the bulk of the Muslim population in France doesn’t live there.’’

He also argues that the narrative of ‘Islam versus the west’ needs to be urgently abandoned. ”The narrative is used by ISIS, it is used by the provenance of the ‘clash of civilisations’, it’s used by the extreme right. It is an easy narrative because it seems to fit. But in fact I think people themselves know that society is more complex and more diverse.’’

For Professor Martin Scheinin, Professor of International Law and Human Rights at the EUI, the French state’s response to the attacks, which have included the suspension of free assembly, raises fears that civil liberties and the rights of minorities are now vulnerable. He tells EUI Times, ”it is clear that in many European countries there is a real risk of further marginalisation and alienation of Muslim populations. If that happens, it only makes the situation worse, as social exclusion is one of the conditions conducive for the recruitment to terrorism.’’

He goes on to warn that “terrorist profiling should be explicitly rejected by prominent political leaders. They should also engage in building good community relations with Muslim communities, together with the police that should actively and visibly recruit members of minorities into their ranks.’’

Scheinin likewise warns against a knee-jerk response to the attacks in favour of more surveillance, cautioning, ”calls for increased surveillance are regularly heard after every terrorist attack, even when too much surveillance on too many people has failed and has become a part of the problem. In most terrorist attacks, including the recent ones in Paris, at least one of the perpetrators was known in advance to the authorities. Casting the net wider and wider through mass surveillance of ordinary people means collecting more and more ‘hay’, instead of going after the known ‘needles’.’’

As French police continue to launch dramatic pan-European raids to track down the individuals responsible, and Hollande continues to wage an air strike offensive against ISIS in Syria, many have expressed despair at the escalating violence of the past week and the seemingly bleak prospects for ethno-religious harmony. The task falls to western policy makers to reconcile navigating the path towards peace and social inclusivity, with the age-old desire to demonstrate decisive action.





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